Posts about transportation

Building a Network of Tunnels Underground to Ease the Flow of Traffic

Guest post by Aron Alba

“Roads must go 3D” – Elon Musk

The Boring company plans to build the network of tunnels under the ground in order to combat traffic congestions all over United States. As seen in their presentation video, the idea is to construct a system of tunnels in which electric vehicles autonomously zip around cars, people and cargo transport in high speed under the surface (like a scene from a science fiction movie).

The ride would begin with the lift that lowers the vehicles from the surface into the tunnel system. These lifts could be a possible bottleneck for the entire system, but it may be the best solution. To secure the vehicle to the autonomous pod and possibly select the end destination would take some time anyways, so this transition into the tunnel system could go unnoticed. Pods could travel at higher speeds than those allowed for the human driver, since the system is autonomous and completely monitored. The scenery wouldn’t be much though, so probably not the most interesting ride, but certainly fast.

Why build a tunnel network in the first place?
Traffic congestion is a very common nuisance in american lives. With the problem just getting worse. In order to solve this problem you have to build more roads or have fewer cars on them with arranging a better public transport. The land for the roads is scarce. The alternative of going up using drones to fly people around may not become possible due to safety concerns in a long time. Where to go then? Underground.

This has not been done before for obvious reasons, it is really expensive. The most expensive roads to build are tunnels and bridges. Tunnels have even more problems the larger they get. With people driving inside of them there needs to be proper ventilation to get rid of the carbon-monoxide. Resting stops for people. Great deal of risk with so many people driving inside a closed tunnel. The subway system is one solution to many of these problems. Except subways lack the flexibility and require substantially more infrastructure.

Elon Musk’s big plan is to use the technology that his other company Tesla already has developed. Instead of trains like in a subway system, Musk plans to have autonomous pods that run on battery power to zip along the tunnels. This has several advantages. First the battery powered pods to not require power lines to be continuously run through the tunnel like the train does, this saves on the costs of the tunnel. Also since the pods will be autonomous, this saves on personnel needed to operate the system. But probably the smartest idea behind the Boring company’s plans is to build a tunnel with a smaller bore diameter. Probably large enough to fit a pod with a largest planned Tesla vehicle but certainly smaller than the current tunnels for trains.

The Boring company plans to build the tunnel network using a tunnel boring machines. These machines are massive systems build to bore tunnels with circular cross section. They consist of cutting head system, a system for removing earth, systems for advancing the cutting head, systems for laying the concrete walls around the bore. At the end these machines leave a tunnel pretty much ready to use.

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Drone Deliveries to Hospitals in Rwanda

Partnering with the Government of Rwanda, Zipline serves 21 hospitals nation-wide. They provide instant deliveries of lifesaving blood products for 8 million Rwandans.

Their drones are tiny airplanes (instead of the more common tiny helicopter model). Supplies are delivered using parachute drops from the drone. Landings are similar to landings on aircraft carriers (they grab a line to help slow down the drone) and, in a difference from aircraft carrier landings, the drone line drops them onto a large air cushion.

Zipline Muhanga Distribution Center launched in October 2016 making Rwanda the first country to integrate drones into their airspace and to begin daily operations of autonomous delivery.

As of May 2017, Zipline had completed over 350 delivery flights to real hospitals and their pace is accelerating. Zipline can cut delivery time from 4 hours to 15 minutes (which is extremely important in time critical health care emergencies).

I wrote in 2014 about the huge potential for drone delivery of medical supplies. It is wonderful to see Zipline improving people’s lives with their effort.

Related: Inspirational Engineer, William Kamkwamba from Malawi (2008)Using Rats to Sniff Out TBUS Fish and Wildlife Service Plans to Use Drones to Drop Vaccine Treats to Save FerretsWater Wheel

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Autonomous Delivery Robots Launched in Europe and USA

Starship Technologies is launching a fleet of autonomous delivery robots on the pavements of the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland as part of the testing program. A similar program will be announced for the United States shortly.

The largest European food delivery company Just Eat, leading German parcel delivery company Hermes, leading German retailer Metro Group, and innovative London food delivery startup Pronto will test the delivery robots developed by Starship Technologies, a company launched in 2014 by Skype co-founders.

a starship robot at Branderburg Gate, Berlin

Starship delivery robot, Branderburg Gate, Berlin, Germany

As part of the program, dozens of robots will be deployed in five cities to run first test deliveries and introduce the innovative devices to the general public.

“By launching partnerships with major companies we will enter the next phase in our development. While Starship has been testing the robots in 12 countries in the last nine months, we will now develop know-how on running real robotic delivery services,” said Ahti Heinla, co-founder, CEO and CTO of Starship Technologies.

Robots developed by Starship Technologies are meant for delivering packages, groceries and food to consumers in a 2-3 mile radius. The robots can drive autonomously while being monitored by human operators in control centers. Introduced to European and American cities since the end of last year, the robots have already driven close to 5,000 miles and met over 400,000 people without a single accident.

Frank Rausch, CEO of Hermes Germany, said: “We are very proud to be Starship’s exclusive logistics partner in Germany. At Hermes we believe that parcel delivery’s main goal is to fully satisfy the customers’ needs in receiving their online shopping orders as fast and convenient as possible. Nobody likes to spend hours waiting for the courier just to have a parcel delivered. Therefore, individually scheduled delivery services will become increasingly important within the coming years.”

The test programs will run in London, Düsseldorf, Bern and another German city to start, before moving to several other European and American cities. Starship Technologies will also continue testing in Tallinn, Estonia where its R&D facilities are located.

Related: Using Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless Areas (2014)Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential for Benefit to Society (2014)Autonomous Helicopters Teach Themselves to Fly (2008)Toyota Develops Thought-controlled Wheelchair (2009)

Car Powered by Compressed Air

I wrote about cars powered by compressed air back in 2008. Turning such innovative prototypes into products of sustainable businesses is quite difficult.

This new attempt to produce cars powered by compressed air has an innovative design with a joystick instead of a drivers wheel. The AirPod is being developed in France. Compressed air has been used to power trams in France since the 19th century.

The AirPod has a range of 150 to 200 km and a top speed for 80 km per hour. The cost will be about US$10,000.

They claim the cost per mile is about 1/3rd of that for electric vehicles. It is nice that we have engineers around the globe continually working on new uses of technology to provide us better options for living.

I hope such cars can be a success. It does seem to me electric cars seem the more likely large scale success but it is good to have people seeking out innovative solutions.

Related: Compressed Air Powered Car Webcast (2008)Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential for Benefit to SocietyEngineers Save a Life, With Safe Car DesignToyota Scion iQ (2011)Car Style Mass Transit Mag Lev System (2009)

Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential for Benefit to Society

Self-driving cars was something that seemed very far-fetched when I first read Google was seriously investing in pursuing that idea as a commercially viable product (Google’s Self Driving Car – 2010 post). I quickly became convinced they were right. I still think it is questionable if they will succeed (the political issues may well be even more difficult than technical ones). But the chances of success seem reasonable and the investment in research could provide a huge payoff.

Google’s self driving cars have driven 700,000 miles without an accident already; which is amazing. Warren Buffett stated that “self-driving cars are a real threat to the car insurance business” (His company owns the GIECO car insurance company) at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in Omaha.

There are some people, stressing that this is not ready for mass market use. They are right. But, I think it is funny to see people thinking that a very early stage huge innovation in transportation not being ready today is a reasonable criticism. I am amazed that this huge innovation may actually be available before 2020. That would be incredible.

Certainly even then it will have limitations. And certainly there will be accidents. The current transportation system with humans driving cars has thosands of accidents a day and tens of thousands of deaths a year in the USA alone every year. Every year 1.2 million people die worldwide in traffic-related incidents, and over 90% of those accidents are due to human error.

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Stop Sign Mistake Proofing

This is a pretty cool example of using technology to prevent problems. The video shows a system that cascades a sheet of water and displays a stop sign directly in the path of trucks ready to crash into a tunnel (because the truck is too tall).

The driver had ignored several less obvious signals that they were headed for danger. This is an application of one of my favorite management (and industrial engineering) concepts: mistake proofing. As I have stated before, often it is really mistake making more difficult rather than mistake proofing. This truck driver ignored the first several warnings and actually could have ignored this one. This system doesn’t physically prevent the error (the options to do this I can think of would be impractical) but this does prevent the errors in any reasonable case it seems to me.

It does seem the process could be improved a big by doing the cool shower stop sign when the truck still has time to turn off without a huge delay. From the video it seems the truck progressed to a point where getting it out of the way created a major traffic backup.

Related: Practicing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at AppleVisual Management with Brown M&MsPoor Results Should be Addressed by Improving the System Not Blaming IndividualsCutting the Boarding Time of Planes in Half

Hacking the Standard Bike Wheel

The Copenhagen Wheel stores energy (from braking…) and provides it when you need it (going up hill…). It is good to see innovation that helps transportation and can encourage people to be more active. Order now for $799.

Related: Engineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerSeparated Bike Lanes Reduced Injuries by 45% and Increased Retail Sales 49% (for nearby stores)Bike Folds To Footprint of 1 WheelSports Engineering at MIT

Hyperloop – Fast Transportation Using a Better Engineering Solution Than We Do Now

Elon Musk (the engineer and entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and before that he helped create PayPal) has a very cool idea of how to provide fast long distance transportation (faster than a plane). Essentially it is a big version of pneumatic tubes that used to be used to send small packages around a building, as seen in the movie – Brazil 🙂 Details are scheduled to be released August 12th.

This Is How Elon Musk Can Build the Hyperloop for a Tenth the Cost of High-Speed Rail

Having a elevated Hyperloop main line also completely avoids or reduces many of the pitfalls of ground-level right-of-ways, and opens up some new opportunities as well:

  • The crossing of other right-of-ways, like roads and railways, will be a breeze.
  • Rivers and other terrain obstacles will only be a 10th the problem of rail construction.
  • Hyperloop can avoid tunnels completely by having more flexible choices of right-of-way.
  • An elevated right-of-way opens up new route options, like leasing farmer’s fields using contracts similar to what wind-power companies sign.
  • That could be paid for by leasing Hyperloop’s right-of-way to communications companies for fiber optic cables, cell phone towers, etc.
  • …and let’s not forget the solar power that a couple of square miles of surface area can generate!

Hype Builds Before Elon Musk’s August Alpha Plan for Hyperloop

The Hyperloop would transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes and at about twice the average speed of a commercial jet. The system would be on-demand, cheaper than current alternatives, impossible to crash, and potentially, run entirely on solar power.

Travelers ride in pods magnetically accelerated and decelerated into the main tube (like a rail gun) where the air circulates at speed. The air between pods acts as a cushion, preventing crashes, while more air injected through perforations in the tube levitates the pods and reduces friction, much as it might on an air hockey table.

Elon Musk has some very good ideas but what really sets him apart is turning them into functioning enterprises. Great ideas are wonderful but a huge number never go anywhere. Those people that can actually get ideas into the marketplace are the people that provide a much greater standard of living for all of us. And many of them are engineers.

Update: link to his blog post announcement.

More examples of cool extreme engineering: Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-TunnelTransferring Train Passengers Without Stoppingtransatlantic tunnelWebcast on Machine That Bores Subway Tunnels

How to Walk on Ice

infographic explaining how to walk on ice - walk like a penguin

Infographic by Tablet. Falling on ice leads to many injuries and even 60 deaths a year in the USA (about the number that will die due to tornados). The graphic encourages thinking like a penguin. Penguins walk well on ice (in some ways) and they also fall well.

Seeking to keep your weight well supported (short strides) is wise (and sliding instead of picking up your feet can help). Falling well is also important. It is basic physics, you want to lower your center of gravity if you are start to slip and avoid any excessive force (so sliding is better than trying to stick out your hand and support all your weight). The elderly are especially susceptible to injuries – avoiding taking direct shocks to the wrist, knees or hips is wise). It does seem kind of silly to learn how to fall but it is very helpful in avoiding injuries.

On sidewalks if you are going to fall and there is snow piled up off the sidewalk, falling into the pile of snow may well be softer than falling directly onto the sidewalk.

On ice you have lower friction so strategies that require friction are not useful – quick moves often rely on very sturdy bases (which are based on the friction of our shoe on for example concrete [which normally is good – though business shoes are not very good] and on ice [where it is very poor – sliding and gradual moves are better]).

Related: Falling SafelyMinistry of Silly WalksMake Crosswalks More VisibleWhy Wasn’t the Earth Covered in Ice 4 Billion Years Ago – When the Sun was DimmerScience Toys You Can Make With Your Kids

Make Crosswalks More Visible

Good simple idea. And then executed well – for nighttime at least. Crosswalk lights up when in use giving drivers a more visible clue to stop.

Related: Ministry of Silly WalksKindergarten Students Pedel Their Own Bus to SchoolPassion for Mechanical Engineering Nurtured as a ChildBird Feeder That Automatically Takes Photos When Birds FeedEncouraging Curiosity in Kids

The Eagle Has Landed

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren land on the moon: July 20, 1969. As Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first step onto the Moon he said:

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Related: Experiment, dropping a hammer and feather on the MoonPlanetary scientist Jennifer Heldmann discusses the MoonApply to be an AstronautOne Giant Leap For Mankind

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